So I’ve been sick this week.

Not like, debilitated sick, more like a low-grade fever that periodically spikes before I knock it back with another dose of Tylenol. Sleep is fitful because of the fevers and congestion and my wife has threated to audiotape the sympathy of my snoring which suggests nights have not been restful for either of us.

But…life and work goes on. I eek out a few hours at the computer before the fever gets me and I shiver under a blanket for 45 minutes as the meds kick in and then get back to work. Thankfully, because I work from home I’m not at risk of infecting anyone other than my betrothed, and I’m pretty sure our vows included the “in sickness and in health” parts.

My work this week has been…slower. I can’t concentrate as well. Tasks take longer than they should. Or, I sometimes find myself rushing through something in order to get some rest, but upon returning to it see that I’ve left more work for myself. Last night in an effort to get some better sleep I took some Tylenol PM which always gives me a hangover, so this morning I was well and truly befogged for hours.

I’ve felt somewhat better this afternoon, which is why you’re reading these words, but I can already feel a crash coming on. If I had to, I don’t know, study for a test tonight, I would be in real trouble. 

Working through this illness has made me glad that I’m not being graded on the quality or speed of my production this week. I’ve done what I could, and been backstopped by others in my work and life for those things I’ve not been able to get to. It is all rather unremarkable.

But I’ve also been thinking how difficult this would’ve been had I been a student with a major assignment or two due in the midst of the illness. There’s no way I would’ve been able to perform anywhere close to my best. What if those assignments were worth 15 or 20 percent of my grade, and I torpedoed a high-GPA semester because of the bad luck of catching a bad virus?

At the end of the semester, have you ever looked down the list of student grades and seen one of those low-scoring outliers and wondered what might have happened? On occasion, I’ve asked, and often students would say that they had been sick, or that’s when a relative had passed away, or a roommate had a bad breakup they tried to help them through, or any number of other life things that inevitably happen.[1]

I had never considered this aspect of my switch to contract/portfolio grading, but it helps to mitigate the damage of a bad week or two of life happening when it comes to the student’s grade. I get to assess the totality of their work, rather than adding and averaging the points along the way. Do I think this is a fairer way to handle grading?

I do.

Sure, stuff happens, and grades don’t really matter, so if that stomach bug results in a B+ instead of an A-, who really cares? Them’s the breaks.

But if grades don’t really matter, why would we allow these arbitrary misfortunes to be determinative? 

I really have to get back to bed now.


[1]Sometimes it is worse, like a week (or more) of homelessness. 

Inside Higher Ed